The Government’s independent advisors, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), have highlighted technology as key to making the UK’s net zero emissions target feasible and cost-effective.
In 2019, the CCC said the key technologies needed to tackle climate change are now understood, falling in cost, and can be implemented with “strong leadership from Government.” Successive Governments have committed to funding and supporting technology development.
This Insight outlines key discussions around the role of technology in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It looks at how innovation is supported in the UK, views around the limits to technology’s potential, and summarises three technologies that could play a key role in the future.
Technological innovation in the UK
There are significant global efforts underway to make low-carbon technologies commercial and increase their uptake.
The UK Government’s approach, as set out in the Clean Growth Strategy, is to create a favourable environment for the private sector to invest. This includes designing competitive markets and regulation, and funding technology development from basic research to pre-commercial trials.
The Government expects to spend £2.5 billion on developing low-carbon technology between 2015 and 2021, including through UK agencies responsible for low-carbon innovation. These are:
- UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), which allocates academic and public-private research funding, including the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and two energy-related Catapult centres (Energy Systems and Offshore Renewable Energy).
- BEIS Energy Innovation Programme, which aims to accelerate commercialisation of technologies across six themes including industrial decarbonisation and carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS), and renewables innovation.
- The Faraday Challenge, which leads on electric battery innovation research and development and investment.
- Other departmental spending across BEIS, DfT, DfID and Defra. This also includes spending on the 25-Year Environment Plan and Clean Air Strategy.
There is also continuing Government support for research into nuclear fusion technology, which could provide vast amounts of low-carbon electricity but has been slow to develop.
Carbon capture, usage and storage
Carbon capture usage and storage CCUS (or CCS) is a group of technologies that together capture waste carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions before compressing and transporting them to be stored where they cannot contribute to climate change.
Conventionally thought of as a way of decarbonising fossil fuel power stations, CCUS is increasingly considered for use in other sectors. This includes heavy industry such as cement, iron or steel production, generating hydrogen, or removing greenhouse gases by combining CCS with bioenergy, known as BECCS. CCUS and BECCS are currently ‘unproven’ technologies – they have not been used at scale in a commercial setting.
The UK Government supports the development of CCUS in its aim to: “enable the UK to become a global technology leader for CCUS and ensure that government has the option of deploying CCUS at scale during the 2030s, subject to costs coming down sufficiently.”
Hydrogen is a flammable gas that can be produced by extracting it from water, methane or organic material.
Unlike fossil natural gas, hydrogen does not produce CO2 or other GHGs when burned or used in a hydrogen fuel cell. While currently used as a chemical feedstock in industry (e.g. for fertiliser production), its use could be expanded to help decarbonise additional sectors. This could be as a source of heat in industrial processes or homes, or as a transport fuel.
Although hydrogen production is widespread, no low-carbon production methods are yet commonplace due to high costs. The UK Government is funding several cost reduction and demonstration projects, including £28m for low-carbon hydrogen production, £18.5m for industrial fuel switching and £23m for hydrogen vehicles and infrastructure.
The ability to store electricity is increasingly important in the UK power system as it becomes more flexible, as well as for wider use. Electric vehicles are gaining prominence as battery ranges increase and charging times fall. There is also increasing interest in battery use in private infrastructure. ‘Smart’ homes and businesses can use batteries to store electricity (e.g. from rooftop solar panels) and move the timing of their electricity demand away from peak hours.
This and other ‘demand-side response’ is likely to be a key approach to operating flexible electricity systems in future.
The UK Government is supporting the development of batteries through the Faraday Challenge. It helps to fund the Faraday Institution, an independent research centre bringing together academia and industry to support research and training for battery manufacturing and innovation.
There are doubts, however, about the extent to which technological breakthroughs can or should be relied upon to mitigate climate change.
For example, UK FIRES (a collaboration between five UK universities) has argued against relying on unproven technologies such as hydrogen and CCUS. They say, amongst other reasons, this is due to the long timeframe required to move a lab-scale idea through technical and commercial development.
This reflects other warnings from academics that an over-reliance on ‘negative emissions technologies’, particularly BECCS, could present significant risks to emission reduction plans if these technologies fail to materialise.
Visions of the future
There are many possible combinations of approaches to preventing the worst effects of global warming. It is likely that technology will play a role, but it is also likely to be part of a wider approach incorporating nature-based solutions and lifestyle changes. A separate Insight on Climate change solutions: The role of nature discusses nature-based solutions.
According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is a trade-off between a future where emissions reductions are achieved mainly through technological means and one in which lifestyles are less GHG-intensive, energy demand is lower and there is greater use of forestation to remove GHGs. In any case, the IPCC suggests that meeting global emissions reduction goals will require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” in coming decades.
- Electricity grids, House of Commons Library.
- Flexible Electricity Systems, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.
- Electric vehicles and infrastructure, House of Commons Library.
- Decarbonising the Gas Network, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.
- Hydrogen in a low-carbon economy, Committee on Climate Change.
- CCUS, House of Commons Library.
- Carbon capture and usage, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.
- Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.
About the author: Jack Miller is an energy advisor at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST).